(« back to home page)

English Church Architecture.


WENTWORTH, Holy Trinity  (SK 384 982),


(Bedrock:  Carboniferous Westphalian Series, Middle Coal Measures.)


A church by one of the foremost Victorian church architects,

John Loughborough Pearson (1817-97), notable especially for its vaults. 

Born in Brussels but raised from a young age in Durham, John Loughborough Pearson was the tenth and last child of Ann and William Pearson, a painter of landscapes who regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy and who probably ensured his young son was exposed to the visual arts as he grew up, even if, as it appears, the younger Pearson's formal education was very limited (Anthony Quiney, John Loughborough Pearson, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 1979, p. 5).  By the age of fourteen, it was certainly clear he could draw however, and his father obtained a pupillage for him with Ignatius Bonomi (1787-1870), a well-respected architect of Italian origins, practising in the city, who, over the next ten years, ensured Pearson acquired a thorough training in all aspects of the profession, until September 1841, when Bonomi announced he was going to form a partnership with a young man of his acquaintance, and Pearson promptly left, probably feeling he had been unfairly passed over.  A hiatus then ensued in Pearson's career, followed by a year or thereabouts, during which he worked,  in turn, for Anthony Salvin and Philip Hardwick in London.  But Pearson was able to build up his own individual clients and commissions during that time, and a point was soon reached where he had a viable church building practice of his own. (Quiney, pp. 7-18).

Pearson was a devout churchman throughout his entire life, but although he joined the trenchant Ecclesiological Society, there is little evidence that he shared that Society's dogmatic Anglo-Catholic views, being, in all likelihood, of a latitudinarian persuasion.  His architecture is less intense than that of his High Church confrères and with a few conspicuous exceptions, his buildings are not notable for the structural polychromy that was all the rage in the third quarter of the nineteenth century especially, but rather for an ingenious use of internal space, which was his supreme accomplishment.  Pearson could design a vault for almost any space, however awkward, and largely as a result, many of his churches are distinguished by their interesting internal perspectives.  His generally relaxed manner and churchmanship did not suit everybody, however, and sometimes he was replaced, after having been appointed to a job initially, by a more thrusting competitor - most notably Street.


This very attractive rural village is unexpected only five miles from the centre of Rotherham, and its exceptional parish church is another surprise, for this is a remarkable building, even among the works of its prestigious architect.  Erected in 1873-7 at the expense of the sixth Earl Fitzwilliam of neighbouring Wentworth Woodhouse, it stands on the edge of the park, set back from the village down a long tree-lined drive.  Of relatively simple plan, the church impresses by its size and by the nobility of its conception.  Composed of a chancel with a N. vestry, a crossing tower with adjoining transepts, and an aisled nave with a N. porch, it is the height of the church that is immediately striking, due not only to the tower and broach spire, soaring almost 200’ (61 m.) into the sky, but also to the tall walls to all parts, as emphasised particularly by the height of the window sills, which exceeds 12' (3.7 m.) even in the lean-to nave aisles.  Seen from the south, there is also the particular features of a very tall, circular stair turret in Scottish baronial style, placed in the re-entrant between the chancel and S. transept (as illustrated left), with a blank lower stage reaching higher than the ridgeline of the transept roof, succeeded first by a much shorter blank stage, then by a short stage pierced by narrow rectangular openings set in blank lancets, and finally, by a conical roof.  The crossing tower rises in three stages to battlements, above the nave, chancel and transept roofs, its lower stage lit by small Y-traceried windows on either side of the roof gables below, its short second stage, blank, and its third stage pierced by two, two-light bell-openings in each wall, with shafts between and at the sides.  The ribbed spire is lit by a single tier of gabled lucarnes in the cardinal directions only.


Window tracery in all parts of the church is predictably geometric, in line with Ruskin's strictures in The Seven lamps of Architecture (London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1849, ch. 2, paras. XXII-XXIV), although the precise forms vary.  The most elaborate windows, inevitably, are reserved for the principal fronts and are six-light in the W. wall of the nave and N. & S. walls of the transepts, but, surprisingly, only five-light in the E. wall of the chancel, each of which has a combination of encircled quatrefoils and cinquefoils with, perhaps, a sexfoil or an octfoil, in the head.  (The photograph, right, shows the S. transept S. window.) The nave aisle windows are two-light trefoils in circles in the heads, while the clerestory windows above and behind, are three-light and larger, with intersecting tracery and encircled quatrefoils above.  The two-storeyed porch is lit by side windows consisting only of quatrefoils in circles, but it is given architectural status by being approached up a short flight of steps, by the quadripartite vault inside, formed of two shallow bays with nailhead decoration on the ribs, and by, most especially, another circular stair turret, being  smallercersion of the tower stair turret, situated in the northwest re-entrant between the porch and the nave.


Internally, it is the provision of stone vaults over that all parts of the church, that makes this church so thoroughly memorable.  The nave vault (seen below, from the west) is formed of four tall quadripartite bays separated by wider transverse ribs bearing dog-tooth moulding set between rolls, but the aisle vaults are five bays in length due to the addition of extra, short bays to the west, and the four full-length bays have additional half-ribs crossing from the apices to the aisle walls, to separate the two, two-light windows that light each individual bay.  The nave arcades are four bays long, composed of arches of complex profile supported on compound piers comprising eight unequal shafts separated by deep hollows, with capitals extending all the way round.  A decorative frieze of blank geometrical shapes (mainly trefoils) runs between the arcades and the clerestory, recessed in the stone. 


The space beneath the crossing serves as the western half of the chancel while the sanctuary to the east is approached up three steps.   The mouldings around the crossing arches are cunningly contrived (see the photograph below, which looks towards the east):  the second and fourth orders (counting from the inside), carry bands of dog-tooth, but the number and succession of the mouldings is not immediately evident as the roll on the third order continues around the tower angles to bisect the rolls around the neighbouring arches at right angles to itself.   (This complicated description can, perhaps, be better understood by reference to the photograph below.)  A band of pierced quatrefoils passes round the tower, above the apices of the crossing arches, and immediately above again, a gallery passage runs between the Y-traceried tower windows seen externally, and an inner wall pierced by lancets springing from narrow columns.  The bell-stage is supported by an octopartite vault with dog-tooth decorating the ribs, with the usual central circular hole to allow for passage of the bell-ropes.  The N. & S. transepts are each vaulted in two bays, with vaults springing from groups of three shafts at the angles and double shafts rising from corbels between the bays. The sanctuary is also vaulted in two bays and features another gallery passage at the level of the window sills, about 15' (4.6 m.) from the floor. 

All these ingenious and magnificent features merit careful examination but it is also worth taking note of some things that are absent from this  building, constructed at the very end of High Victorian times, for structural polychrome, always used sparingly in  Pearson's churches, is totally absent here and the exterior is all millstone grit, unbanded and with no tumbling in of contrasting stones around the window heads, nor any attempt to highlight random pieces of masonry, while inside, everything is a cool, cream limestone – probably magnesian limestone from the line of outcrop to the east.


Nor has Pearson shown much interest in spending his client’s money on elaborate furnishings or ornament either, saving only in the reredos (right), which features a beautifully designed and carved tableau depicting The Last Supper, set beneath crocketed ogee arches and between arches with crocketed gables on either side.  However, the wooden pulpit is very simple and the stone font adopts an equally basic form.  Clearly, therefore, Pearson was very careful here about how he spent his patron’s money and every available penny was made to contribute to the grandeur of the main structure - a line of approach that has paid handsome dividends.  Pearson did not excel at  carved ornament, which could be cold and mechanical in his hands, whereas, in contrast, in the combination of masses and the handling of vaults, he was without peer.  Earl Fitzwilliam paid £25,000 for this masterwork and found Pearson at his best.


[Other churches by Pearson featured on this web-site are Dartington and Landscove in Devon, Broomfleet, North Ferriby, Scorborough and South Dalton in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Daylesford in Gloucestershire, and Appleton-le-Moors in North Yorkshire.]